The Pure Land Upaya as Ekayana


It seems like we have at last covered enough ground to get right to the primary objective of this blog – to point to the precise reason why Jodoshinshu can be considered by Shinran Shonin to be the ne plus ultra of Ekayana Buddhism – Dharmic praxis par excellence.

Thomas Cleary, in the introduction to his translation of and commentary on the Carya Gita (the Tantric Poems of the Siddhas of old Bengal), mentions that Buddhism is a continuum:

In the first stage [purification], living is a form of responsibility; in the second stage [integration], living is a form of duty; in the third stage [re-creation], living is a form of artistry, encompassing responsibility and duty in creative devotion. Living in all its many aspects becomes a practical art of expressing a constructive relationship with absolute truth in the context of life. Tantra is the consummation of the wedding of absolute and relative knowledge, of insight and compassion.

He also writes that:

In the context of Tantric Buddhism, the principles of Hinayana and Mahayana Buddhism are personified as supernal beings … Those who only observe from outside, or those within [the] tradition who have forgotten what they are doing, may see or experience this kind of practice as a form of idolatry … From a unitarian pan-Buddhist [i.e. Ekayana] point of view, however, the differences are only external.

As we have mentioned elsewhere on this blog, Jodoshinshu employs effort (remembrance / calling, nembutsu) to arrive at effortlessness (Sukhavati, Jodo, the Pure Land). In this it is very similar to Chan. The great Japanese Zen master, Dogen (a contemporary of Shinran who was also originally a Tendai monk), similarly employed effort (meditating / sitting, zazen) to arrive at effortlessness (Dhyana / Chan / Zen).

In his Genjōkōan (現成公案), Dogen has written:

To study the Way is to study the Self. To study the Self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be enlightened by all things of the universe. To be enlightened by all things of the universe is to cast off the body and mind of the self as well as those of others. Even the traces of enlightenment are wiped out, and life with traceless enlightenment goes on forever and ever.

In the Bendōwa (弁道話), Dogen indicates the rationale behind using effort to arrive at effortlessness:

Thinking that practice and enlightenment are not one is no more than a view that is outside the Way. In Buddhadharma, practice and enlightenment are one and the same. Because it is the practice of enlightenment, a beginner’s wholehearted practice of the Way is exactly the totality of original enlightenment. For this reason, in conveying the essential attitude for practice, it is taught not to wait for enlightenment outside practice.

This is Adi-Yoga (Anuyoga / Atiyoga), the quintessence of all tantras, it is the heart of Dzogchen and Mahamudra, the root of Chan / Zen and the essence of Jìngtǔ / Jodoshu / Jodoshinshu.

Sakya Pandita has written of this same unity of effort and effortlessness, of the non-duality of practice and enlightenment:

If one understands this tradition properly,
Then the view of Atiyoga too
Is wisdom and not [merely] a vehicle.

The Guhyagarbhatantra describes how, in the creation stage (corresponding to the first stage mentioned by Cleary, above), one visualises a deity. This visualization or exteriorization is followed by a dissolving of the deity into oneself (this relates to the second stage mentioned by Cleary). This dissolving is followed by coming to rest in the natural state of innately luminous pure mind (which in turn corresponds to the third stage mentioned by Cleary).

All of which brings us back to that oft-mentioned quote from the Anjin-Ketsujo-Sho, on Amida and Practitioners as One Body:

With Pity, Amida fixes his attention on us so that his mind-and-heart penetrates as deep as the marrow of our bones and stays there. It is like a piece of charcoal that has caught fire. We cannot pluck the fire from the burning charcoal however much we try. The embracing light of his mind-and-heart shines on us right through to the core of our flesh and bones. Even though it is contaminated with the three poisons of greed, hatred and illusion and with every other defiling passion and anxiety, there is no region of our heart that is not saturated with the Buddha’s virtue. Thus the Buddha and sentient beings constitute one body from the beginning. This state of unity is called Namu Amida Butsu.

The crux of this matter, and indeed it is the crux of all Buddhadharma, is recorded succinctly in the Samyutta Nikaya:

I (the Buddha) crossed the flood only when I did not support myself or make any effort.

This cessation of effort and spontaneous arising of effortlessness is the naturalness (jinen) spoken of by Shinran.

For instance in Ichinen-tanen mon’i (Notes on Once-Calling and Many-Calling):

In entrusting ourselves to the Tathagata’s Primal Vow and saying the Name once, necessarily, without seeking it, we are made to receive the supreme virtues, and without knowing it, we acquire the great and vast benefit. This is dharmicness, by which one will immediately realize the various facets of enlightenment naturally. “Dharmicness” means not brought about in any way by the practicer’s calculation; from the very beginning one shares in the benefit that surpasses conception. It indicates the nature of jinen. “Dharmicness” expresses the natural working (jinen) in the life of the person who realizes shinjin and says the Name once.

Shinran discusses the stages mentioned above in the following terms:

Gyaku means to realize in the causal stage, and toku means to realize on reaching the resultant stage.


Myo indicates the Name in the causal stage, and go indicates the Name in the resultant stage.

And also:

Ji means “of itself” – not through the practicer’s calculation. It signifies being made so. Nen means “to be made so” – it is not through the practicer’s calculation; it is through the working of the Tathagata’s Vow.

And yet again:

Jinen signifies being made so from the very beginning. Amida’s Vow is, from the very beginning, designed to bring each of us to entrust ourselves to it – saying Namu-amida-butsu – and to receive us into the Pure Land; none of this is through our calculation. Thus, there is no room for the practicer to be concerned about being good or bad. This is the meaning of jinen as I have been taught.

As the essential purport of the Vow, [Amida] vowed to bring us all to Supreme Buddhahood. The Supreme Buddha is formless, and because of being formless is called jinen. Buddha, when appearing with form, is not called Supreme Nirvana. In order to make it known that the Supreme Buddha is formless, the name Amida Buddha is expressly used; so I have been taught. Amida Buddha fulfills the purpose of making us know the significance of jinen.

Shinran Shonin also provides a caution against the danger of slipping back into effort after arriving at effortlessness:

After we have realized this [i.e. jinen-honi), we should not be forever talking about jinen. If we continuously discuss jinen, the no-working that is True-Working will again become a problem of working. It is a matter of inconceivable Buddha-wisdom.

To cling to concepts of effortlessness, original enlightenment, and Buddha-Nature is still clinging and is thus a return to effort, adventitious delusion, and self-nature.

The Ekayana is the One Vehicle. The One Vehicle is the Buddha Vehicle. The Buddha Vehicle, properly understood, is no vehicle at all – rather it is inconceivable Buddha-wisdom.

6 responses »

  1. Thank you for this post! It really helps clarify a lot about the Pure Land path in relation to the other Buddhist traditions, particularly the Tantric path. I had never thought about Pure Land in relation to Tantric practice, and it was illuminating to see some of the similarities.

    In my recent practice of Pure Land, I have noticed that one thing that hinders my willingness to completely entrust to Amitabha through the nembutsu is a doubt about worldviews. Although, I often say that I believe in reincarnation, that the mind can exist independent of the body and that Buddhas are real, I’ve noticed that there is still a substantial part of me that is very hesitant to let go of my materialist western worldview.

    Practicing the other paths that put more emphasis on self-power, I hadn’t had to confront this so much as it mainly seemed a matter of producing insight through diligent vipassana and mindfulness practice. However, in order to practice the Pure Land path sincerely, I feel that I do have to whole-heartedly trust that there is a Buddha mind out there (and in here) actively trying to liberate all beings. But then again, this may be a misapprehension, and perhaps it is enough to believe that the fundamental nature of mind is luminous, awake and compassionate.

    From all this, I was wondering if you could say something about having faith in the Buddhist worldview and the reality of Amitabha in relation to growing up in a Western materialist worldview.

    Thank you vey much


  2. A naive, literalist belief in any Western worldview is just as ill-advised as a naive, literalist belief in any Eastern worldview.

    Though born in the East, I too live and work in the West and have had to assimilate its materialistic, positivistic worldview … to a degree.

    My early training was in marine biology and geology and so I have studied and worked with people largely programmed by that worldview. I have also lived for quite some time in the so-called Bible Belt, and so have lived and worked amongst those largely unencumbered (for better or worse) by that worldview. And I have lived and worked with traditional people from a variety of cultures who had varying degrees of exposure to and acceptance of that worldview. I say this to let you know I can relate to your question.

    Dharma is not so much a belief-system (though there are certainly sectarian Buddhists who have turned it into such) as it is a set of experiments in consciousness and being. There really isn’t any such thing as a Buddhist worldview per se. Buddhism, can assimilate or be assimilated into a broad variety of worldviews – which is why Thai Buddhism is vastly different from Japanese, Tibetan and Chinese Buddhism. This said, Siddhārtha Gautama Śākyamuni does indeed make use of the indigenous worldview of his native land and culture, but he also remained silent on a number of questions specifically so that people wouldn’t take his statements and turn them into a belief-system, since belief tends to discourage rigorous investigation. If you believe you already know the truth, you don’t spend time and energy looking for it.

    As to re-incarnation, a naive belief in the literalist interpretation of it is in no wise required for the effective practice of Jodoshinshu (though, again, sectarians may cavil). Have Xioayao Xingzhe point you in the right direction on that point, as we have discussed this issue before.

    As to whether there is a Buddha-Nature, first have a look here.

    Then, do what I did. Prove it. Yes, it is possible. No, not with the ratiocinative mind—though that is where I will ask you to begin your research—but with that which in ancient Greek philosophy was called the Nous, and in Islamic philosophy was called al-Aql, and in Buddhist philosophy is called Buddhi.

    First, with the ratiocinative mind, ask oneself how many of the greatest thinkers and most compassionate persons known to recent and ancient history acknowledged the existence of something beyond the self: Roger Bacon, Simone Weil, Rabia al-Adawiyya, William Shakespeare, Galileo Galilei, Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, Plato, Plotinus, Lao Tzu, Śaṅkara, Hafez, Martin Luther King Jr., Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, Pythagoras, Jesus, Mohammed, Hui-neng, and Siddhārtha Gautama (just to name a few almost at random).

    All of these men and women had first-class minds, and were not so very likely to have the wool pulled over their eyes. They were also very compassionate individuals, not likely to have the world pulled over their eyes. Investigate this matter thoroughly. Establishing the reliability of a source of information is critical. But, of course, i am not asking you to take them at their word, I am just asking you to—due to their intelligence, forthrightness, integrity and obvious compassion—allow for the possibility that intelligence, science and acknowledgement of a power and being beyond the self are not mutually exclusive. I would also like to make it clear that there are Eastern and Western scientists who have experienced this reality more or less directly.

    True science, not the belief-system of contemporary scientism, is about looking at reality objectively – without bias. So, if fellow scientists have established a premise—that there is wisdom and compassion greater than that had by the empirical ego individually or collectively—then we must allow for the possibility that the premise may be true (without bias in either direction) and then proceed from there. You have lived many years under the worldview of materialistic science, try living the same number of years under the worldview of traditional science. Honestly apply oneself to the upaya of the Pure Land (knowing full well that it is an upaya).Then ask oneself whether the world is a better place for having submitted to the former or to the latter? It is also interesting to note that there are no elements of a true scientific worldview that are not part of the traditional, but there are quite a few elements of the traditional worldview that are left out of the scientistic, though not out of the truly scientific.

    A few quotes from Albert Einstein:

    “The most beautiful and most profound experience is the sensation of the mystical. It is the sower of all true science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead. To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their primitive forms – this knowledge, this feeling is at the center of true religiousness.”

    “The religion of the future will be a cosmic religion. It should transcend a [merely] personal God … Covering both the natural and the spiritual, it should be based on a religious sense arising from the experience of all things natural and spiritual as a meaningful unity. Buddhism answers this description. If there is any religion that could cope with modern scientific needs it would be Buddhism.”

    You may wonder if that is only true of Theravada Buddhism and not so much Mahayana generally and Jodoshinshu specifically. Well, this goes back to the notion of upaya. I am not a proponent of Ken Wilber (we disagree on many things), but he wrote quite accurately that:

    Upaya, skillful means, constitute precisely that experiment which, if conducted in the personal laboratory, will allow the individual to decide for himself whether or not Mind exists. This experiment, like all scientific experiments, consists of a set of injunctions or instructions which the individual is free to follow or reject—but should he reject them, then he, in the spirit of scientific honesty, must withhold his judgments on the experience … If a scientist denies Mind-only as so much mystical pap without himself performing the experiment, then he is behaving as blatantly unscientific as if he denounced the experimental data of one of his colleagues without himself repeating that experiment.”

    Make the experiment and find out what you find out.

    • Thank you very much for your in-depth reply!

      Thinking about it now, I can see that I have’t really engaged in the experiment of putting the Pure Land upaya into practice with an unbiased mind, and in a very unscientific way, I have brought many doubts into the lab before even turning the microscope on!

      Thank you also for your reminder about over reifying Buddha-nature. It’s such an easy thing to constantly slip back into doing.

      I look forward to making the experiment with a more open mind now and seeing how things fair living under the traditional sciences.

      Many thanks,


  3. I hope I can frame this question in a way that makes sense. The quote from Einstein,” It should transcend a [merely] personal God … Covering both the natural and the spiritual, it should be based on a religious sense arising from the experience of all things natural and spiritual as a meaningful unity. Buddhism answers this description. If there is any religion that could cope with modern scientific needs it would be Buddhism.” indicates the limitations of the personal but doesn’t that mean that the “personal” still has a use and a place? I have even read in traditional sources that the personal is referred to as the “relative absolute.” Could you please expand on the proper understanding of the “personal” in the Ekayana Dharma tradition?

    • Yes, the personal has a very important and special place in religion, as has been discussed here and here on this blog. However, to be complete, a religion must also transcend the ‘personal’ precisely because it is a ‘Relative’ Absolute and not the Absolute as such (see here).

      In Ekayana Dharma and Jodoshinshu these two (the Absolute and the Relative Absolute) are known as Dharmakaya Tathata (Body of Dharma as Suchness) and Upaya Dharmakaya (Body of Dharma as Expedient or Compassionate Means). In Hindu tradition, one might also speak of Brahma Nirguna (absolute, unconditioned or unqualified Brahma ) or Brahma saguna (relative, conditioned or qualified Brahma ).

      The Absolute and Relative Absolute can both be glimpsed in a careful reading of Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki‘s rendering of a passage from the Avatamsaka Sutra (Ch. Huayen Ching, Jp. Kegon Kyo):

      The Dharmakaya, though manifesting itself in the triple world, is free from impurities and desires. It unfolds itself here, there and everywhere responding to the call of karma. It is not an individual reality, it is not a false existence, but is universal and pure. It comes from nowhere, it goes to nowhere; it does not assert itself, nor is it subject to annihilation. It is forever serene and eternal. It is the One, devoid of all determinations. This body of Dharma has no boundary, no quarters, but is embodied in all bodies. Its freedom or spontaneity is incomprehensible, its spiritual presence in things corporeal is incomprehensible. All forms of corporeality are involved therein, it is able to create all things. Assuming any concrete material body as required by the nature and condition of karma, it illuminates all creations. Though it is the treasure of intelligence, it is void of particularity. There is no place in the universe where this Body does not prevail. The universe becomes but this Body forever remains. It is free from all opposites and contraries, yet it is working in all things to lead them to Nirvana.

      A religion that sets a cap at the personal, cuts itself off from the Source that was and the end that is.

      Now, that being said, it may be very necessary for an individual or given people at a given time to focus on the personal aspect, but one cannot rightly call something a religion if it does not, in its full manifestation, acknowledge what lies beyond.

      The personal element is required for those religions, sects and times that need (for various reasons) to focus on faith and devotion, on human limitation in the face of the All.
      The Absolute element is required for those religions, sects and times that can (for various reasons) focus on pure Intellection and Gnosis and the human as partaker in and regent of the Absolute.

      There is no whole and complete religion where these two poles are not apparent. Indeed, in India, the terms Bhakta and Jnanin refer to those engaged in these respective types of religious praxis.

      In true, non-sectarian Jodoshinshu these poles are very clearly present, though the former is given more emphasis than the latter.

      I would recommend a close reading of Shinran: an Introduction to His Thought for more on the Jodoshinshu understanding of this subject.

      A glimpse of this topic can be found on page 53 of Toward a Contemporary Understanding of Pure Land Buddhism, (from the paragraph beginning with the words “The Integrated Structure of Reality”) on through the next several pages – paying particular attention to the quote on page 54 and the whole of page 55. I am not very fond of the text this is taken from (as a whole), but it is a good place start if you stay within that chapter.

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